By Michael Egan

Michael Egan works for Citizens Advice St Helens, a member of the Funeral Poverty Alliance coordinated by the Fair Funerals campaign.

‘If people want to avoid funeral poverty they should plan ahead.’ This is the argument we hear from politicians, professionals and parts of the media.

But the reality for many is that death happens after your finances have already taken a real battering. Perhaps through paying healthcare bills or taking time off work to care for someone.

A grim outlook for carers

If you’ve been caring for someone before they die, the financial knocks can be really crushing. According to Carers UK there are 6.5 million carers in the UK supporting a loved one who is older, disabled or seriously ill.

At Citizens Advice in St. Helens, we help lots of people in funeral poverty, many of whom were caring for someone before they died and now find themselves in very financially precarious situations.

But what is it really like for people after the person they’ve been caring for dies? Here are stories from two people I worked with recently.

Alan’s story

Alan is 61 and lives alone following the death of his mum. He was his mum’s carer before she passed away earlier this year. There was nothing luxurious about the funeral Alan organised for his mum - he found the most basic funeral he could for £2,852 - but paying for it has caused him serious financial hardship.

Luckily Alan got a Funeral Payment, a government grant that is sometimes available to people on very low incomes when there’s no other money available to pay for a funeral. But these grants haven’t kept up with the rising cost of funerals. Alan got £1,444 from the government and had no way of paying off the £396 he still owed to the funeral directors.

Bereaved families hit by the Bedroom Tax

To make matters much worse, Alan then got told he would be hit by the Bedroom Tax. The Bedroom Tax cuts money from your housing benefit because the government views you as ‘under occupying’ your home.

If someone you’re living with dies, you become eligible for the Bedroom Tax three months after their death. This means you have to find a way to pay the tax (very difficult if you’re on a low income) or clear out of your property and downsize, even though in lots of places there are no smaller places to downsize to.

For Alan the Bedroom Tax will shave £25.63 a week off the £73.10 Employment Support Allowance he has to live on. So Alan has to find a way to survive on less than £50 a week. Could you survive on that amount?

Alan and I discussed downsizing to a smaller property. But he’s been there since 1965. Understandably, he doesn’t want to leave the family home he has lived in since he was a child, with all the memories of the mum he recently lost.  

The writer Michael Rosen speaks about how important it was to preserve the room of his son Eddie after he died. In light of how many bereaved people in social housing aren’t given this choice, he says “it all seems to confirm that your life is of less value than people with big houses”.

Today, Alan is living on nothing while the government adjust his benefits from Carer’s Allowance to Employment Support Allowance. Alan’s only option was to approach a local food bank.

Fortunately we made an application to the British Gas Energy Trust which meant he could pay off the outstanding £396 he owed to the funeral directors. However, Alan’s financial situation remains really precarious.

Josh’s story

Josh is 57 and had been living with his dad and caring for him before he died. He claims Job Seekers Allowance of £73.10 per week as his sole income.

Like Alan, Josh sought a basic affordable funeral. The bill was £3,196. Josh’s dad had £1,135 in his bank account when he died which was paid directly to the funeral directors. But this meant Josh only got £208 from the Social Fund Funeral Payment. With his family he sold some jewellery but he has still been left with a debt of £1,653.

The death of Josh’s dad means that Josh also has a newly empty spare bedroom. I bet you can see where this is going. Josh expects the government to contact him any day now and tell him he needs to pay the Bedroom Tax.

Josh was left without any income whilst his benefit was changed from Carer’s Allowance to Job Seeker’s Allowance. And he will also have to pay a TV Licence for the first time as he can no longer claim his dad's free licence for the over 75s.

Our government is failing bereaved carers who in many cases are saving the state lots of money by taking on caring responsibilities for their older, disabled or seriously ill relatives. As one of the richest countries in the world, the UK should be able to make sure that all of our citizens can access a dignified funeral without getting into extreme financial hardship.

As a member of the Funeral Poverty Alliance, a not-for-profit coalition of organisations campaigning against funeral poverty, we call on the government to:

  • Increase the Funeral Payment so it covers the cost of a basic funeral
  • Come up with a plan to bring down funeral costs
  • Require funeral directors to provide an affordable, basic funeral

Click here to contact your MP and ask them to take action on funeral poverty.

If you’re struggling with funeral costs on a low income, Quaker Social Action’s (QSA) Down to Earth project offers free practical support. QSA also runs the Fair Funerals campaign.